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Foundation Height

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If we could conjure up the spirits of several custom home builders who have been dead for about 100 years, I am afraid they would be most disappointed. No doubt they would shake their heads when they gazed upon house after house in the suburbs that had the top of their foundations skimming just above the final grade of the soil that surrounds each house. In fact, we might even hear them mutter, "What was that builder thinking..."

If you are in the planning stages of building your new home and/or are talking to various custom home builders about a new home, you need to talk about foundation heights. This topic simply deals with the distance from the top of the foundation down to the finished grade that touches up against the foundation and the soil within 10 feet of the foundation. It may not seem important to you now, but once you are moved in and it rains hard for several days, you will wish foundation height would have been just above "How big will my kitchen be?" on your top ten wish list.

I am constantly amazed at the intelligence of many old builders who have departed this world. It is indeed a shame more builders do not "build them like they used to". Drive around the older sections of your city and you will undoubtedly see homes where the first floor level is two or even three feet above the ground outside the home. Often these homes have steps that lead up to the front door. They often have dramatic front porches where you can sit and gaze down upon the gorgeous neighborhood.

I firmly believe this was done for several reasons. Powered excavating equipment was not available or readily available. It was less expensive to dig shallower foundations. Foundation walls that protruded above grade allowed basement windows to exist without the modern sunken semi-circular window wells. These exposed windows could let in more light and ventilation into the basement. The dirt removed from the excavation could be gently graded away from the house to create wonderful positive drainage.

But scan the new homes in subdivisions today and you will rarely see a home built this way. Is the new method better? I think it is debatable, especially in light of the modern uniform building codes. The codes speak to foundation heights. Typically they say the amount of exposed foundation should be between a minimum of 4 and 6 inches above the finished soil that touches up against the foundation.

Furthermore, the code will often state the ground around the foundation must slope away from the house. Read this code section and it will almost always say the ground must fall 6 inches vertically for the first ten feet of horizontal distance away from the foundation. What do all of these numbers have to do with foundation height you might ask? Plenty!

The developer of a subdivision establishes the finish grade of the lots before construction begins. Builders need to be sensitive to these established grades. A good builder determines the highest point of ground near the home and sets the top of the foundation in relation to this high point. Keep in mind the distances stated in the building code are acceptable minimum standards. In other words, meeting the code standard is like getting a 70 percent on a test. You just barely passed. If you want an A plus on your foundation height, make sure your builder sets it higher out of the ground.

When a new home builder decides to set the foundation height too low, all sorts of problems happen. The ground around the home tends to be very flat. Positive drainage is either minimal or may not meet code. Sidewalks leading from driveways to the front door act as dams. These sidewalks become a barrier to establishing the needed positive drainage away from the house as they sit too high. The problem gets even worse when the landscapers show up. They will often mulch in these areas and create negative drainage. The water in some areas around your home may actually drain towards the foundation!

Typically, I would set all of my foundation heights about two feet higher than the highest point of grade within ten feet of the finished foundation. Doing this allowed me to create 14 or more inches of fall within the first ten feet of horizontal distance. It also produced 10 inches of exposed foundation above the soil around the home. In addition, I would use some of the excavated soil to create gentle slopes away from the house in as many directions as possible. When done properly, these slopes did not interfere with the grade established by the developer.

Houses built in this fashion do not appear to sit high out of the ground. They appear stately as they sit on the artificial rise. What's more, the house sports positive drainage from all sides so that flooding rains do not inundate the basement space.


8 Responses to Foundation Height

  1. I have an exsiting brick cape-style home (built in 1948) that has a problem with raised grading and flower beds against the home's exterior, that is as high as 1-3 bricks high, above the top of the foundation walls. The home was custom built by it's original owners and I have no idea if they even knew to apply any waterproofing to the exterior of the foundation walls. The recommendation of a 4-6 inch exposed top foundation might be acheivable for the front and sides of my home, but the back has a gentle slope towards the house that I'm already too low where the grade meets the house. Can I just simply pull about 12" of the top layer away from the back of my home and apply waterproofing, so I can continue to keep the grad level 3-4 bricks high above the top of the foundation wall? Or do I really need to try to get the rear of my home excavated down to at least the 4" minimum of exposed foundation? Note: I also plan to install french drains across the back and down the sides of my home (as close the the house as I can manage) and also connect my downspouts to them as well, and run them out to the street in front of my home. Thanks for your help and advise!

  2. Hi im way past the building planing infact there were no building plans at all it was a today i have money for this do it and so on until we got to the roof and then cement trucks came by offering left overs daily so we did the drive way and half the porch until we noticed that if we finished the porch it would block our door and now we have no idea how to fix that problem because if we finish the porch and make our main entrance room the same hieght the ceiling will be to low for my husband to fit in so we are stuck any ideas??? Thank you

  3. I'm in the planning stages right now, and this forum has answered some of the MANY questions I have. One question that I cannot find an answer for is this: My house will be 54' × 54'. Do I need any additional "footings" running through the center of my slab? If so, what distances apart do these need to be, and do they need to be directly under a "load bearing wall?

  4. I recently purchased a home with a very low foundation under the garage. The soil and mulch were touching the bottom of the vinyl siding. I lowered the soil to expose about 4 inches of foundation but after a recent rain I noticed some pooling of water by the foundation. The sidewalk leading from the driveway to the garage is definitely an obstacle to properly grading this area. Any ideas as to what my other options might be? Thanks!

  5. Hi...can you confirm ground level.. Is this where your front door is? My house is on a hill and I want to build a balcony which would be the same level as the front door. Is this classed as a permissable single storey extension

  6. Is there any documentation available of issues related to a new construction home built to low in the ground that is downhill from agricultural land? My house is two feet to low from the detailed engineered building plan as well as what it should be from additionally having the grading shot with lasers. We had to remove truck loads of dirt after purchasing this house at the zoning depts requests. We had drain tile installed on our property, had to put in a rain garden, have slopes and berms to try to keep water from the house also. My biggest concern is they plant soybeans/corn fifty feet to the south of my house. I have issues with my well water quality continuously, my land and my house to the point we have had to move into a rental and leave all of our possessions behind. We are having to do a lawsuit etc but as I am working with the state dept of safety and professional services currently I am at a loss by their lack of knowledge of most everything. Our township/ county are also under investigation in this claim so as anyone to whom I can contact or obtain any info from is limited. I had concern for the home being to low before any other issues arose and no matter what department I contacted nobody had a clue or source to send me to to address this.

  7. We are having a similar issue with our house being built. The garage is under the minimum height restriction that the county requires because there is a view protection ordinance. The builder built the garage below the minimum and we are concerned about flooding. Any tips? Have you gotten closer to resolving your issue? We do not know how to approach the issue.

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